Guggenheim’s “Romantic Songs” Confront the Irony of Feminist Art and Emotional Labor


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In 1943, Hilla Rebay commissioned Frank Lloyd Wright to design a “temple for the spirit” to house the Solomon R. Guggenheim art collection; this weekend, a feminist performance by artist Ragnar Kjartansson will transform the museum into a deceptively magnificent “church of pain”. Stationed in the building’s iconic rotunda, female, non-binary musicians perform an ethereal patchwork of acoustic pop songs, all arranged in the same key to complement each other sonorously. But come closer and the lyrics get crisp: “You let me rape you / You let me desecrate you” or “I’m pulling you close to you / You just say no / You say you don’t like it / But girl you I know you are a liar. “

This is the second iteration of “Romantic songs of the patriarchate” a 2018 work by Kjartansson, the Icelandic artist best known for his video installation “Visitors,” which to Guardian named the best work of art of the 21st century. Formally, “Chants romantiques du patriarcat” is an exercise in recontextualization; Songs like “Under My Thumb” by the Rolling Stones and “Girl, You’ll Be a Woman Soon” by Neil Diamond really take on new meaning when people who might be the subjects of the songs sing them over and over for 90 minutes at a time. time.

“When it becomes that dense atmosphere, I think it really embodies what it feels like to be oppressed,” explains the music director. Kendra McKinley, who also plays there. “It’s coming to you from all directions, these trigger word fragments coming in and going out, and you can’t escape it.”

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. David Heald © The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, New York

Not to mention that the play is unintentionally a manifestation of the patriarchy itself: it is a work of art by a white man who demands of women and non-binary people physically exhausting and emotionally devastating work. As the cast members pointed out in a panel discussion ahead of Wednesday’s rehearsal, there’s an element of cognitive dissonance to performing it. Since hearing those concerns, Kjartansson has heeded the ethics of the play, wondering if it is wrong to ask the performers to participate in such a grueling feat for the sake of making a point. “It’s just really embarrassing. I feel so embarrassed! he said of irony, which was not intentional but which strangely confirms the value of the work. We are sitting, masked, in the cafe on the third floor of the museum; the performers have just put their guitars away and left for the day. “I am in this conflicting position. Why the hell am I doing this? Artistically, I think it’s right, but I don’t know morally if it’s right. The play is basically an open wound, there is no resolution, it just shows this wound. An open wound in this beautiful atmosphere.

To his credit, McKinley says, Kjartansson has been “vulnerable and humble” in the face of criticism. “The fact that you’re ready to have this conversation is a big reason it seems progressive and productive,” where another artist might have asked disgruntled artists to leave.

Ragnar Kjartansson photographed by David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2021.

Kjartansson nods and leans back in his chair, eyes wide. “This morning was one of those times you will never forget.” As someone who considers himself a longtime feminist, he is keenly aware of his privilege. “Everything I say sounds really stupid, which is really good! This is what it is about. This piece consists in confronting all these ideas, all these rights that I hold within me from my education and from these songs and from my culture.

He believes patriarchy is woven into every story, “every song you hear.” These songs are just one example, that’s almost all you hear on the radio. Kjartansson sees pop music as a mirror of society. “Songs are part of the fables of our time, or almost like the prayers of our time, because a song goes into your head and into your system like a prayer did before. He also wants to examine why some artists are considered serious while others are struck off. “I grew up with the idea that Leonard Cohen is a real artist and Bob Dylan is a real artist from my Icelandic socialist parents, but stuff like ABBA is just disgusting commercial gum,” he explains. . “Then 40 years later Leonard Cohen is sponsored by Armani and Bob Dylan did commercials for Cadillac and Victoria’s Secret, but ABBA was the main sponsor of the Swedish Feminist Party and they were never sold, never. So that complicates things. This idea that pop is somewhat superficial, I don’t like that idea.

ABBA’s aesthetic tension has long been a source of inspiration for him; “The Visitors” takes its name from the band’s latest album. “I think ABBA is a really interesting thing, because they’re in these ridiculous costumes, then Björn and Agnetha get a divorce and he writes a song where she sings the line, ‘tell me, is she kissing like I kissed you? ‘ How painful, and they do it in their silly costumes! “The artist smiles.” These are really hardcore songs, painful and brutal. I love that.

When Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released “WAP” last summer, he listened to an hour-long debate on Icelandic public radio about whether it was a feminist manifesto or pornography. “Of course the bottom line is you don’t know, it’s hard to say. That’s what a great pop song does, it complicates things. Also complicated: The chauvinistic songs in Guggenheim’s play are considered “fantastic songs by some of the greatest songwriters of our time.” More thorny still: some have been written or performed by women, such as “‘He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” by Carole King, which was recorded in 1962 by The Crystals. (Although intended to criticize domestic violence, the song has been widely interpreted as an endorsement of it.) “Fire,” written by Bruce Springsteen, is best known from the 1978 recording of The Pointer Sisters.

Kjartansson is the rare person who believes he was born at exactly the right time. “What’s interesting about the 21st century is that everything is being called into question, which is fantastic,” he says. “I sometimes tremble with excitement about our time, because all of the things we take for granted suddenly aren’t.” While #MeToo and the ongoing racial calculus are the biggest examples, he’s also interested in cultural touchstone debates like the TV show. Friends, including the intrigues that some Icelanders see as perpetuating misogyny and racism. “My 11 year old daughter and her friends are starting to like Friends. Me and [my wife] Ingibjörg had a parent conversation about it. As you re-examine seemingly innocuous movies and songs, he says, “you start to question your own motivations. #MeToo isn’t just about crazy monsters like Harvey Weinstein or Bill Cosby, it’s about how men take their position for granted and take their connection with women for granted.

From left to right: Anna J Witiuk, Alex Koi, Rose Stoller, Felice Rosser, Miriam Elhajli and Katie Martucci. David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 2021.

If the performers hadn’t struck up such a frank conversation a few hours before our second meeting at the museum, this article would have been very different. A day earlier, Kjartansson had enthusiastically discussed the sincerity and irony in performance art, “space music”, the concept of “carving a song” and the removal of structure. narrative through repetition. He talked about his years in advertising (“The difference is like, when you do artwork you have to tell the truth, and when you advertise you have to lie”) and the project. from Taylor Swift’s re-recording (“It sounds a lot like concept art, like remaking your work, it’s like Edvard Munch painting ‘The Scream’ multiple times.”) He praised Olivia Rodrigo (at rightly : “already seen is great ! And spoke fondly of his experience dealing with the pandemic in Iceland temporarily without tourists, where he jogged in the morning and stopped by his very good friend Anne Carson for breakfast. He recommended “The genre of sound” Carson “an incredibly gorgeous essay on female voices” and showed photos of her 11-year-old daughter standing with the poet and classic near Geldingadalir, the volcano that began to erupt in March. He literally sighed in relief how amazing it was! and shiny! and totally awesome! the cast of Guggenheim turned out to be, and even after their reviews it still feels that way – now there’s a new sense of camaraderie and oneness around the play’s intentions.

McKinley considers Wednesday’s mini-account “a crucial expansion of the play,” since “Romantic Songs of the Patriarchy” was designed to spark debate. “The fact that we’re all having this conversation is how we can get around the culture of cancellation and hopefully have a major growth point.” She adds: vilifying the artist is not the solution.

“But I’m up for it! »Intervenes Kjartansson. “In a way, it’s like a mission accomplished.”

Ultimately, McKinley says, the irony inherent in the play makes it true. “It sounds complicated and it sounds beautiful, and this is where the mystery of patriarchy lies: we are all enamored of this thing that we are still trapped in.”

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